One was Colonel Herbert Kappler. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, he had risen through the ranks of the SS, and had won his superiors’ admiration for his brutal suppression of the Belgian resistence during the early stages of the war. He was now appointed Head of the Gestapo in Rome. One of his first acts was to demand a ransom of two million pounds of gold from the Jews of Rome—if it was not paid, they would be deported to Germany. With the help of many Italians, the amount was raised. But the deportation went ahead anyway, supervised by Kappler. Some 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz. About 16 survived.
Later in the war, Communist resistance fighters set off a bomb that killed 32 German soldiers. In retaliation, Kappler chose ten Italians for every German killed, marched them to the Ardeatine Caves at Domitilla, and machine-gunned them down. When the shooting was finished, the entrances to the caves were blown up, sealing the victims, whether dead or wounded, behind tons of rock.
Then there was Pietro Koch. An Austrian by birth, he was head of interrogation for both the Italian Fascists and the Gestapo, and was known as “an acknowledged master of tortures both crude and refined.” Gallagher describes a few of Koch’s methods: sometimes he would strap the subject into a leather belt studded with narrow steel spikes, and slowly tighten it. Another trick was to systematically file to the subject’s teeth down to the sensitive roots. Undeniably a sadist, Koch liked to personally supervise SS torture sessions and was probably the most hated person in Rome.
John May, O’Flaherty would later say, was a special kind of genius: “the most magnificent scrounger I have ever come across.” May had an incredible talent for obtaining things that weren’t supposed to be obtainable. Did the escapees need shoes or clothing, no questions asked? Not a problem. Did they need more food than wartime rationing allowed? John May could get it. Like O’Flaherty, May had friends everywhere, particularly in the black market. Numerous useful people owed him favors. As shrewd and careful as O’Flaherty was large-hearted and innocent, John May proved to be the perfect counterpart to the Monsignor.
Also involved was Count Sarsfield Salazar of the Swiss Legation, very helpful in procuring neutral Swiss identity papers and oiling diplomatic wheels. Thomas Kiernan, the Irish ambassador to the Vatican, had to adhere strictly to his country’s policy of neutrality, but his wife, the noted singer Delia Murphy, had a freer hand and helped where she could—seeing that O’Flaherty had the use of the Irish Legation’s car when he needed it, for example. Molly Stanley, a middle-aged English governess, was another good friend of O’Flaherty’s who turned out to be a tireless worker on his behalf. She had lived in Rome since her early twenties, and her insider’s knowledge of the city was invaluable. Behind the scenes, Sir D’Arcy quietly supplied money. With these people aiding O’Flaherty, the rescue effort started to take on the appearance of an organization.